When Passion for Arts and Literature Becomes an Act of Activism

These publications are encouraging more diverse voices

In 2020, as the world was embroiled in a global health crisis, the murder of George Floyd in police custody and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement renewed our attention on racial injustice and its manifest in society.

Amid the height of these social reckonings, Canadian magazine Ricepaper named its 2020 LiterASIAN Writers Festival “Quiet No More,” bringing antiracism issues to the forefront. At a time when visible minorities reported more frequent race-based harassment, this served as a wakeup call and “inspiration for Asians who would not be silenced by violence but would fight it and do everything possible to counter it,” said the magazine’s executive editor Allan Cho.

Last year, Ricepaper celebrated its 25th anniversary, proving to be the longest-running magazine of its kind in Canada. Its mandate is to support writers of Asian heritage to showcase their work and provide a safe space for more established authors to guide emerging ones.

During the past 25 years it featured many renowned names, including pioneer novelist Wayson Choy and acclaimed poet Joy Kogawa, and nurtured its own artists. The Man Booker Prize shortlistee and Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Madeleine Thien was one of its former editors.

“In its early days, the magazine sought far and wide for submissions, since few of Canadian Asian descent had published or enrolled in creative writing schools,” Cho said, “Ricepaper was often the only literary stage for generations of writers.”

While Canada takes pride in its multiculturalism and diversity, statistics in the publishing industry show much work needs to be done. According to the latest Canadian Book Publishing Diversity Survey in 2018, 78 per cent of top management is white, with Black and East Asian trailing far behind at two per cent each. These are the gatekeepers who decide which manuscripts will see sunlight and which will end up in the rejection pile.

Cho has been with Ricepaper for more than a decade now. Throughout that period, he witnessed the ups and downs of the publishing field. The heyday of print was over, and many publications folded. Still, Ricepaper remains. It discontinued circulation of the print magazine after 20 years with an anthology AlliterAsian: Twenty Years of Ricepaper Magazine and transitioned online, a shift Cho said was “liberating.”

Living Hyphen’s first issue – Entrances & Exits. Photo courtesy of Living Hyphen.
Belief is Ricepaper’s latest anthology featuring short stories, poetry, and nonfiction by writers of Asian descent across the world. Book cover design by Katya Roxas.

“Without the stress of layout, printing, and distribution deadlines, we focused solely on providing great writing and engaging with our audience,” he explained.

Another encouraging sign Cho has seen in the past five years is the blossoming of other Asian-themed publications. Founded by the younger generation who grew up between cultures, these magazines (often digital) also serve as a community to share their experiences and connect with their roots. In 2019, Harriet Kim and Mirae Lee created choa magazine to showcase “the nuances and complexities of the Korean female diasporic experiences.” Montreal-based zine Sticky Rice celebrated its one-year anniversary in September after two issues featuring writers and artists of Asian heritage across Canada.

In its 2021 LiterASIAN Festival, Ricepaper invited Justine Abigail Yu and her mother Jocelyn Yu on a panel to discuss their journey of building Living Hyphen – a magazine and community that explores the experience of being a hyphenated Canadian.

Tired of hearing about other writers of color being pigeonholed into certain cultural stereotypes or having their manuscripts rejected because their stories weren’t Canadian or “ethnic” enough, Justine Abigail Yu – a Filipino Canadian writer – decided to start something of her own. Living Hyphen sold out 1,250 copies of its inaugural issue Entrances & Exits in two print runs last year. Its second issue Resistance Across Generations was launched in July and sold about 500 copies within one month.

With the help of her mother as the publisher and creative director Josh Layton, Justine Abigail Yu has managed to build a strong foundation for Living Hyphen, from which other multimedia content branched out. This move is not only crucial to the survival of any publications but also to reach its main readers in the 20-35 age group.

Besides writing workshops conducted by Yu herself, Living Hyphen hosts a podcast, which just finished its first season with the theme “Homestuck.” In August, several stories from its first issue were adapted into a play called nowhen in High Park – an immersive experience that guided the audience from seven entry points to converge at the amphitheatre for a live performance. Notably, both the podcast producer Trisha Gregorio and the play director Alison Wong are readers of the magazine.

“I think that’s our greatest achievement,” Yu said, “We are able to reach people and connect with people who want to breathe new life into our stories and feel empowered to turn this magazine, this story and community into something of their own.”

Currently she is working with non-profit organization Department of Imaginary Affairs on The Stories of Us, a project that teaches English to newcomers through first-person narratives. In each book, a new immigrant’s story is printed in their native language and translated into various levels of English comprehension according to the Canadian Language Benchmark Standards.

Yu’s fearless advocacy for Canadians with hyphenated identities was one of the inspirations for two friends and university graduates Anne Claire Baguio and Kathleen Zaragosa to start their own project. From a series of casual conversations last summer, the duo noticed the lack of space for Filipino Canadian youths to connect outside of family, friends, or church. “We then realized that we should [build] it ourselves,” Baguio shared.

Thus, Sliced Mango Collective was born. The meaning of the organization’s name is layered: Mango is a beloved fruit in the Philippines, and it is sliced to represent the different cultures in this archipelago. Additionally, cutting fruit is a way for many Asian parents to show their love and a symbolic, caring act. 

Sliced Mango Collective’s first milestone was the #Sliceofsupport campaign, which fought against the gentrification of cultural space in the Joyce-Collingwood neighbourhood in Vancouver. The group is now working on releasing its first zine to the public, both digitally and print. What’s Your Slice? is a collection of poetry, personal essays and visual arts from 11 artists and writers in the diaspora.

“It would be fitting for our first zine’s theme to be about reflecting on our roots and how they enable us to have a better understanding of our identities and our futures,” Baguio explained.

Thanks to the trailblazing work by Ricepaper, Living Hyphen and countless indie publications that have thrived then folded, the media that Sliced Mango Collective’s members and other Gen Zers now consume has greater representation of people of color. This generation has also grown up witnessing the power of activism and how it helps catalyze social changes.

While there have been more Asian Canadian writers being recognized in the mainstream literary world, Cho believes that Ricepaper is here to stay. “I want to continue to innovate with technology as a tool to raise awareness of anti-Asian racism,” he said of the platform the magazine has built over the years. Likewise, Yu’s Living Hyphen remains open to different possibilities, whether it comes in a print magazine, TV show, podcast or play. “We will continue to move forward as long as we are finding new opportunities to tell these stories,” she said.

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